The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Portrait Photography

What is Portrait Photography?

Portrait photography, also referred to as portraiture, is a type of photography in which the subject is one or more people and the aim is to convey something about the subject’s identity, personality, or story. 

It is usually created with the strategic use of lighting and backdrops, and an important component of portrait photography is understanding how to pose a subject while helping them look natural and comfortable. It’s a style of photography that is often commissioned to commemorate milestones or special events, to help individuals market themselves in an increasingly digital world, or even just to create a memory of a certain point in one’s life.



On the commercial side of things, portrait photography is used by companies and brands to add a human face to their business. It’s also frequently commissioned for storytelling purposes, whether it’s a celebrity portrait accompanying an article about them, a portrait of someone being featured in a news story, or a portrait used in an ad to convey a feeling that a brand wants to associate with themselves. 

There is a huge range of possibilities within this type of photography. Portraits can range in style from clean, professional, and practical to highly stylized and dramatic. It all depends on the goals of the photographer and the person or brand commissioning the photograph.

A portrait of a corporate CEO might try to convey a feeling of expertise, trust, and professionalism, while a portrait of an actor might be more geared toward evoking awe at the range of emotion they can express, or appreciation for their beauty. A grade school portrait may aim to convey cheerfulness, while a university graduation portrait might try to represent a feeling of hopefulness for the future. What ties all of these together is the element of storytelling and connection to a feeling or emotion.

portrait

For as long as people have been making art, the human face has been one of the most compelling and inspiring subjects to take inspiration from and represent. It’s no different when it comes to photography, and portrait photography is one of the cornerstones of the photography profession.

Since portrait photography can take a wide range of forms and be done in an endless variety of styles, many photographers get their start experimenting with portraiture. If you’re interested to know more about what it takes to get started as a professional portrait photographer, read on.

What is Portrait Photography?

The simple definition of portrait photography is a style of photography that captures people and aims to convey a story or emotion through the image. However, like all photography, there is much more involved in creating a strong portrait than pointing the lens and releasing the shutter.  Now that you have a sense of what the purpose or meaning of portrait photography is, let’s get into what it actually entails.

portrait of black man

Understanding your portrait subject

One of the most important parts of portrait photography takes place before the image is captured, in the pre-production stage. It’s true that plenty of excellent portraits are taken without much pre-planning. However, particularly for professional portrait photographers, understanding the goals of your client or subject can help you create the best portrait possible. This will impact what you advise them to wear, hair, makeup and other styling considerations, location, set, and lighting, and finally what kind of poses or expressions you will aim to capture. 

Creating the setting for the portrait

Another key component in the portrait photography profession is understanding how to use set, styling, lighting, and other equipment to create the type of image you are going for. Portrait photography frequently uses backdrops, which can be very helpful because they enable you to shoot in locations that wouldn’t necessarily be very attractive or suitable otherwise. 

You may remember the backdrops available to choose from on school picture day, but there are more grown up alternatives ranging from colored seamless in just about every color you can imagine to a variety of patterns or scenes. 

Portraits can also be taken on location with no backdrop needed, but part of the job is determining the best location for the shot. A family portrait might be taken in a part of the house or in a beautiful field, while a LinkedIn portrait for a tech worker might be well suited to a nice, bright office or lobby setting. 

Lighting is equally important since you can create a dramatically different final product through the strategic use of lighting.

What Are the Different Types of Portrait Photography?

When starting your career as a portrait photographer, it’s a good idea to think about the different types of portrait photography and to determine which you’re most interested in pursuing professionally. There’s no rule that says you can’t dabble in all the different kinds, but when it comes to putting together a portrait photography portfolio, focusing on just one or a few types will help you cultivate a distinct look and specialty that you can become associated with.

Traditional

Traditional portraiture is what most likely comes to mind when you think of the term “portrait photography”. Traditional portraits adhere to the basic rules of composition such as the rule of thirds when framing the subject, make use of studio backgrounds and lighting for a clean, professional look, and involve the subject looking into the camera and typically smiling.

This is a professional, timeless, and universally flattering approach to portraiture thanks to the strategic use of lighting, angles, and posing.

Lifestyle

Lifestyle portrait photography takes a more casual approach than traditional portraits. Rather than being shot in a studio, lifestyle portraits are typically shot in a real world environment and more closely resemble real life. They may still make use of professional lighting setups, but the style is natural and realistic. 

Subjects may be directed but aren’t posed. Instead of being told to look up at a certain angle or move their chin a certain way, they might be asked to walk from point A to point B or to interact with each other if there is more than one person being photographed

Headshot

Headshots are a subset of portrait photography that is most associated with actors and other performers. They are more like traditional portraits in that they are typically shot in-studio with professional lighting, but they are more tightly framed than traditional portraits. While a portrait will usually include the head and shoulders, a headshot only includes the head.

Since these are often used by performers to submit to agencies or job postings, they do usually involve some makeup and styling. 

Conceptual

Conceptual portraiture starts with a concept and then uses portraiture to convey the concept. It can be more whimsical and imaginative than other kinds of portrait photography and may involve interesting manipulations and Photoshop edits to further convey the concept. This type of portraiture often overlaps with fine art photography.

Environmental

Environmental portraiture falls somewhere between traditional portraits and lifestyle portraits. The subjects may be a little more posed, but the environment or surroundings are an important part of the shot as well. These images are taken in real life settings, or in studios that are set up to look like real places, rather than against a backdrop. They can be taken either indoors or outdoors, and may be artificially or naturally lit. 

Candid

Just as the name implies, there is no posing involved in candid portrait photography. Candid portraits may be taken at events, on the street, or even in the middle of a photoshoot in between more posed shots. These portraits can be very powerful because the subject usually has their guard down in a way that is rare when they’re more conscious of the fact that they’re being photographed.

Street

There can be some overlap between candid portrait photography and street portrait photography, but street portraiture doesn’t necessarily have to be candid. A street portrait photographer may candidly snap portraits of passers by, but another common approach is to stop people who have something interesting about their look and to ask to take their portrait.

Self Portraits

The original selfie, self portraits can be as casual or complex as the photographer intends. You can create a studio set up to take traditional portraits, go conceptual, or take your portraits in a more fine art direction. Because the photographer and subject are one and the same, self portraits can often have a raw and compelling quality due to the fact that there is nobody else there to make you camera-shy.

Glamor or Beauty

Glamor or beauty portraiture can range from bright and poppy to moody and sensual, and involves styling the subject with hair and makeup to create a glamorous effect. The subject can be directed with a more traditional or lifestyle approach, depending on the desired final image. These shots are often used in beauty, makeup, or fashion ads or editorial spreads. 

Close-up

Most of the types of portrait photography we’ve looked at so far range from tightly cropped, like headshots, to the standard head and shoulders framing of a traditional portrait, to compositions that include some or all of the body. In close up portrait photography, the subject is framed even more closely, typically focusing on a single feature. For example, the photo may include just their eyes or their lips. This type of shot can look artistic or sensual, depending on the approach. 

Boudoir

Boudoir portraits feature the subject in lingerie or nude, and are are typically sensual or erotic in style. Some photographers specialize only in boudoir sessions, since these prints can be popular gifts for romantic partners, add-ons to wedding photography or a gift to oneself to commemorate a time when they felt attractive and confident. Boudoir photography is about empowerment and giving the subject space to celebrate their body in a way they haven’t necessarily done before. It’s about helping them feel comfortable and connect with their own beauty.

Family or Group

Family or group photography can involve couples, immediate families, extended families, or any other grouping of people. Family photography is popular year round, but is especially in demand around holidays and in the summer when people want to capture and commemorate their special moments. There are some unique challenges to this type of portrait photography, since it’s more difficult to get a whole group to look good in a single image. These are often lifestyle or candid images, though posed, traditional portraits are common too.

Who Are Some Famous Portrait Photographers

Finding inspiration from other portrait photographers may be a great way to help get you started in this niche. In fact, learning about the famous portrait photographers might help ground you in best practice, and inspire you in the development of your own style. Here are a few famous portrait photographers that are known for their work in capturing people in their own unique ways:  

  • Robert Mapplethorpe was famous for his fine art portrait photography. His approach to still life and black and white portraiture was groundbreaking, to say the least.

  • Diane Arbus also made compelling black and white photography portraits, portraying subjects often on the margins of society.

  • Annie Leibovitz, arguably America's most famous portrait photographer, is known for her portraiture of celebrities, depicting them in settings from intimate to sprawling.

  • Cindy Sherman, a fine art photographer specializing in self-portraiture, whose work leans on theatrics and elements of surrealism.

Apart from famous portrait photographers from history, there are many other great portrait photographers you can check out. You can gain inspiration and creative ideas from current working artists and portrait photographers, which might even help you when you go to make a website.

Thinking of Getting into Portrait Photography?

Awesome! This is an exciting genre to get into, and compared to other types of photography, may earn you a more regular income. There are plenty of considerations when getting into portrait photography, from gear and developing your style and portfolio, to showcasing and selling your work. Let's start with what kind of equipment you need to consider.

What Kind of Equipment Do I Need for Portrait Photography?

Assembling your gear can feel overwhelming and expensive, but we hope to lighten the load with a summary of what cameras and lenses to look for when you're shooting photography portraits, as well as comprehensive options to fit a range of budgets. You could simply pick up your smartphone to start taking portraits or consider investing in a DSLR camera. 

Feeling the financial pinch? Many local camera stores have pre-owned options and staff are knowledgeable and there to help you chose bodies and lenses to suit your needs. Facebook marketplace or local camera groups, Kijiji, eBay, and Craigslist are also great places to start looking for used gear.

What is the Best Camera for Portrait Photography?

Whether you're looking into entry-level DSLRs or a top-tier camera with great full-frame sensors for shooting portraits, you're loyal to a certain camera brand, or you have a few lenses you'd like to fit onto a new mirrorless camera, there are a number of great cameras that you can choose from to suit your needs. From Nikon to Canon, check out our comprehensive guide for the best cameras for portraits.

What is the Best Lens for Portrait Photography?

The lens you shoot on is key to taking great portrait photographs, second to your own eye and skill of course! Considering your lens purchase will need to happen either in tandem with your camera purchase or within the confines of the camera you already have.

When shopping for a lens, you'll need to consider your camera's body and sensor size— this affects the focal length of your lens. 50mm and 85mm lenses are pretty standard focal lengths for portrait photography. A 50mm lens will include more of your background and an 85mm will hone in on your subject more. You could find a zoom lens to give you range, accommodating both focal lengths, or you could find a prime lens, which would give you a fixed focal length, typically be lighter and faster to use, but more expensive and you may want to carry several for options. Prime lenses are typically the choice of professional portrait photographers for their sharper and better overall image quality.

Lots to consider, so here is our list of best lenses for portrait photography to help you out more.

If you're checking out sites previously mentioned finding used lenses, a word to the wise: exercise caution when inspecting second-hand lenses, look for possible fungus and glass separation, as this will render your lens useless.

Put your portrait photography on display

Build your brand and showcase your portrait photography with Format's Online Portfolio.

What Accessories Do I Need for Portrait Photography?

  • Tripod: If you don't already have a tripod, getting one can help with things like shooting with long exposures as well as ease of use when setting up your composition or directing your subject.

  • Backdrops: You have so many options when it comes to backdrops, from material type (we love muslin), to size (consider your studio size and subjects) and pattern.

  • Lights: Proper lighting  (studio lighting or natural light) is central to portrait photography. Things like on and off-camera flashes, light reflectors, and continuous lighting are all ways to control your environment and dictate your shoots. Don't get too overwhelmed with lighting equipment though, simple one-light portrait lighting can have incredible effects.

  • Filters: Filters can of course complicate your shooting and in some cases degrade image quality, but when you buy and use the right one, filters serve to benefit your process and output. They can help minimize glare and reflection, control light, protect your lens from damage, even enhance color.

portrait of woman

How Do I Take Photographic Portraits?

What defines you as a portrait photographer will likely make the difference in getting work, versus your competition. While there are of course universals to consider in portrait photography, like capturing your subject's eyes, personality, lighting setup technique, compositions, etc., what you do within these areas can set you apart as a portrait photographer. As well, soft skills like the connection with your subject and good communication skills will help grow your business through recommendations and referrals. 

Here are a few approaches and common considerations in portrait photography worth your time:

Lighting

How you illuminate your subjects can completely change the look and feel of your photos. Familiarizing yourself with lighting techniques, from lighting setups to effects, will give you more options to support your vision and give your clients options.

Focus

Will your subject be in stark focus with a blurred background? Maybe you'll take a different approach, illuminating more of your background or softening your subject. Use your lenses to play with how focus changes the feel of your photographs.

Angles

Capturing your subject by understanding and utilizing angles is another way to dramatically up your game. Consider both your subject's angles and your camera’s angles when shooting.

Time and Planning

Proper planning and adequate time shooting will really aid your process. Not only does it help you prepare, but it also helps your subject seeing you at ease when you don't rush your shot. Plus, with the time and planning you put into a shoot, the more confident you feel, and that totally comes off to your subject too!

Connection with the Subject

Being at ease or having a connection really helps your subject relax, which in turn will allow their personality to come alive for you to capture it. Be yourself, but also let your subject know anything necessary about you before you begin, e.g. "Hey, I'm pretty quiet while I'm shooting. Let me know if you need anything." Or, "Let me know if there's anything that would make you more comfortable while we're shooting."

Communication with your Client

This might be your subject, it might now. But either way, making sure your client expectations are clear is important. Be on the same page about outcomes, as for clarification if you need it, and be ready to work with criticism.

Do I Need Training to Become a Portrait Photographer?

It depends. Considerations on the road to developing your own style and techniques (self-guided training!) include things you've likely been considering already, like researching famous portrait photographers and various techniques. Other ways to get more training, including photography tips and tricks, can be through non-traditional paths like through how-to videos, online or in-person lectures, workshops, conversations among peers and so much more.

Luckily, there are lots of great free online courses and photography workshops that are available to learn more about portrait photography. There are also a number of YouTube tutorials available for free. Although a degree isn’t necessary, if you’re looking to explore art schools for degree-level training, you can consider looking into post-secondary institutes. 

Are There Specific Approaches to Portrait Photography?

After you've decided on a direction, sought inspiration, even taken a few photos, tried a few different lighting setups, there are a few more widely considered approaches to portrait photography. 

Approaches in portrait photography you might want to explore further:

  • Constructionist:  this approach really centers your subject. Having the subject literally construct the portrait. This is usually most seen in portrait studio work and some social photography.

  • Environmental: This approach considers the environment surrounding the subject, this is commonly a place known to the subject, e.g. where the subject lives or works.

  • Candid: This approach is common in street photography, it emotes a relaxed and much less staged air that an approach like constructionist has. This approach is far from a trend, some of the world's most iconic portraits are candid, and a lot of photographers see really good results when working within this confine.

  • Creative: Creative approaches in portraiture exemplify experimentation and artistry. Sometimes this can involve quite a bit of post-processing to make artistic changes to the image.

How Do I Start a Portrait Photography Business?

Building your portrait photography business could be time-consuming, but it’s all about practice and experimenting. Now that you have gear, some inspiration, and techniques to consider, it's time to create! 

If you're still in the experimentation phase, using a person might feel intimidating, or you may not have access to one. Using everyday objects, pets, or a mannequin head can help you perfect lighting and practice getting better using your gear without having to worry about time constraints. Be sure to jot down camera settings and lighting positions in a journal or in your phone so you can go back to them in the future and chart your progress, or remember settings you want to iterate on or use again.

side portrait of woman

How Do I Get Subjects to Build my Portfolio?

As a starting point, ask family and close friends if they'll be your test subjects, or ask peers to sit for you in exchange for headshots. These folks might also provide you valuable feedback for ways to improve your work or highlight areas you are shining in that you should keep nurturing. 

How Do You Price Your Portrait Photography?

The average annual salary for a portrait photographer in the US is about $44,000, but the average in your particular city may be quite different. Having an idea of what you would like your take home pay at the end of the year can help you guide your pricing strategy. 

Of course, your income goal for the year should be informed by what is realistic based on the specifics of your portrait photography business. Here are some of the most important variables to consider when coming up with a pricing strategy that is both realistic and will help you meet your financial goals: 

  1. Where do you live? Portrait photographers can charge more in expensive cities where their clients are likely earning higher salaries compared to the going rate in smaller towns or more rural areas. If you live somewhere with a lot of commercial or business clients that you can potentially work with, they may have bigger budgets than, say, families looking to get their holiday portraits taken. 

  2. What type of portrait photography do you specialize in? It will likely be easier to book regular gigs shooting professional portraits for people and companies, than if you specialize in art portrait photography. This isn’t to say that you can’t make money doing art photography, but your strategy may have to be a little different. For example, it might make more sense to focus on selling prints and showing your work in galleries rather than booking portrait gigs regularly. 

  3. Can you increase your average income from each gig with add-ons? If you’ve reached a point where you are regularly booking work but you’re not quite meeting your goals in terms of regular revenue, consider ways of offering your clients more value for an increased price. For example, if they are ordering prints from your portrait sessions, you can offer larger packages that are more expensive but overall a better deal per print.

  4. Can you fill downtime with mini sessions? If there is some seasonality to your work, offering minis sessions—shorter sessions offering one or a few shots at an affordable rate—can be a way to fill your schedule, earn some extra cash, and get the word out about your business. Potential customers who may not have the budget for your regular sessions can try working with you, and by booking a location or studio and scheduling multiple mini sessions in a row, you can have a surprisingly profitable day. 

  5. Can you get more word of mouth marketing? As you book more clients, encourage them to leave a review or tell others know about your business after their positive experience. To sweeten the deal, offer them a referral discount that they can share with others and use themselves the next time they book with you. This will not only incentivize them to return, but may result in new clients discovering you. 


One of the best aspects of working as a professional portrait photographer is that there is a lot of flexibility in terms of the type of work you can take on, and you can always pivot to another type of portrait photography if you want a change of pace or a new revenue stream. The skills involved in one type are transferable to the rest. 

Portrait photography will always be in demand, especially in our increasingly digital world where individuals and companies have to represent themselves visually online. As a portrait photographer, you can play a key role in telling peoples’ stories. Now that you have the tools to get started as a portrait photographer, it’s time to start building that portfolio.

How Can I Get More Clients for My Portrait Photography Business?

If you're asking this question, you've probably already shared your practice and even taken photos of your family and friends, reached out to your personal networks. At this point, you should have your portrait photography portfolio and website filled with content. Things like SEO optimization, making more connections in your local photography community, even advertising on Google and through Facebook and Instagram, will get you more and more exposure. Just make sure you have a solid portfolio when your website traffic starts to filter in.

Are You a Portrait Photographer Ready to Make a Website?

The ways you present your photography online is an important step in your process, and crucial in drumming up a new business and a great way for new clients to find you. From selecting a website builder best suited to display your work to uploading, editing, optimizing, and maintaining your site, displaying your photography online is a crucial part of your process. Most importantly, getting more and more work!

Just starting out? First, get inspiration and explore site templates from some of the best portrait photography portfolios. From there, start your free 14-day trial and get building your own portrait portfolio website, where you can integrate your social media, create an online store, and display your work how you see fit— with the guidance you need. We even created this easy to follow step-by-step guide to build a portrait photography portfolio set to wow clients. 

 That's it! Whether you're just dabbling or taking on a hobby, or looking to make a career move, we hope to have imparted some portrait photography tips and tricks.



What Are Some Examples Of Portrait Photographers?

There’s nothing like scrolling through the online portfolios of real portrait photographers both for inspiration and to get a sense of the variety of images that can be created under the broad umbrella of portrait photography. These portrait photography examples are sure to get your creative juices flowing and inspire your own portfolio.


Todd Collins

Todd Collins is a Salt Lake City, Utah-based photographer focusing in portraiture as well as wedding and commercial photography. He makes ample use of the beautiful corner of the world he is in by setting many of his portraits against the visually stunning Utah backdrops. While he features studio portraits in his portfolio as well, this shows that you don’t necessarily need to be a set designer to take unforgettable portraits. Using the natural scenes at your disposal in your area can make for a very visually unique portrait portfolio. 

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Henri Verhoef


Henri Verhoef lives and works as a portrait photographer in Amsterdam. His portfolio demonstrates a high level of technical skill, with expert use of lighting and stylized sets for a polished, commercial, look that can lean into the surreal and playful. There are some really unique and creative shots in this portfolio, and there is no shortage of inspiration here for the imaginative and bold photographer who wants to challenge themselves technically.

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Cheril Sanchez


Cheril Sanchez is a Dominican Republic-born and Bronx-raised portrait photographer. Her style is immediately recognizable, and characterized by gentle and vibrant touches coupled with a timeless energy. She works in both digital and film formats, which makes this portfolio stand out for its warm, natural quality. She focuses on developing a personal connection to her subjects and it absolutely comes through in her images.


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How Do You Get Started In Portrait Photography?

Many photographers start out with portrait photography long before they even think about pursuing photography professionally. After all, we all take casual shots of friends and family, and it’s not unlikely that when you first started to learn your way around a camera you asked the people in your life if you could practice on them. 

If you want to take your portrait photography more seriously and make a career out of it, those casual experiences come in handy, but you may want to sharpen your skills in a formal setting or with more dedicated training. Whether you’re the type who likes to learn in a classroom or you’re more of a DIY type, there’s a path for you to get started in portrait photography.

Getting Started by Studying Photography

If you want to get lots of practice in a professional studio setting with access to equipment you may not have at home or be ready to invest in, taking some courses or pursuing an art degree in photography may be beneficial for you. In a school setting, you’ll learn the advanced lighting techniques that produce the stunning portraits you see of celebrities, politicians, and other famous people who have access to top notch photographers. The best photographers make it look easy, but it does take a serious understanding of light, lenses, camera settings, and production to create those types of images. 


Studying in a photography program also gives you the benefit of lots of time to dedicate to your craft. You’ll have regular assignments so it will be harder to procrastinate, and by the end of the program, you’ll likely have lots of different portraits to include in your online portfolio when you’re ready to start pursuing paid work. 


The downside, of course, is that going to art school can be quite expensive. It can also take up time that might be better spent on other things, like pursuing your own creative work or even getting out there and starting to book clients. If you already have quite a lot of technical ability, it may not be worth your while to spend too much time in the classroom. 


Getting Started as a Self Taught Portrait Photographer

Even if you did spend time in a classroom, most pro photographers will tell you that they’re always honing their skills through self teaching methods. If going to school for photography isn’t the right fit for you for whatever reason, portrait photography is not the type of field where you have to demonstrate that you have a degree to be successful. Your clients won’t care if you’ve been to a fancy art school or not. What they do care about is your portfolio and your reputation. 

To beef up your portrait photography skills the do-it-yourself way, there’s really no better teacher than practice. The challenge is that you have to motivate yourself to keep showing up and trying out new skills and techniques, while finding mentors or online resources where you can expand your knowledge. 

There is no shortage of high quality videos on YouTube, articles, and free or inexpensive courses online, where you can learn much of what you need to know about portrait photography. The technical information is not difficult to find, but the trick is to apply it and refine your skills. 

To build up a career, if you're starting a career in portrait photography as a self-taught photographer, a good place to start is in your social circle. Friends and family can be your subjects for portraits that you can use in your portfolio, and they may also be among your first clients when they need portraits or headshots.

Most people need professional images of themselves taken at some point, so being the go-to person in your circle will help you establish some real life skills in terms of how to direct and interact with your subjects, how to help them feel comfortable and at ease, and how to achieve the look you have in mind with your portraits. 

Establishing Your Portrait Photography Career 

Whether you choose the school path or the learn-it-on-your-own path, the challenge once you feel your skills are good enough to start doing paid professional work is to market yourself and start landing clients.

  1. Create your portrait portfolio. Having a digital home for your work, where potential clients can get a sense of your style and of the kind of work you can produce, is essential if you want to start booking paid gigs outside of people who know you personally. 

  2. Try to get published. This may not apply to every kind of portrait photographer, but if you can find blogs or magazines that publish submissions, make a regular habit of getting your work out there. This will not only challenge you to create fresh, high quality work, it will also keep you up to date on trends in your industry. 

  3. Pitch clients. It would be nice if we could sit back and have clients come to us, but the truth is, portrait photographers need to make a habit of regularly pitching the businesses or individuals they would like to work with in order to build momentum and stay booked regularly. You may reach a point when you longer need to do this, but it’s a good practice to have when building your career.

  4. Create a pricing page. Portrait photographers should give potential clients some sense of their price range. The prices don’t have to be firm, but you can provide a starting range for different packages. 

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